What Drives Me

Management Style: I set the tone of the work place, and am responsible for creating an environment where employees will succeed.  My role is to be responsible to the people I manage: I am there to make sure that they have the tools to do their jobs, and their success or failure falls on my shoulders.  In hiring people, I excel at finding the right position for the person, and vice versa.  I do not believe in shoe-horning a person into a job, but making the fit right for both the individual and the team.  I believe in teams.  I love building teams and witnessing the cohesion of a team develop, growing into an entity unto itself.  I believe that a customer’s positive experience, and hence the businesses profitability, starts with treating the employee first and foremost as a human being who deserves my respect, no matter the position, and investing in them by teaching, providing positive feedback,  listening to suggestions, and being clear in my communication without being condescending or dismissive.  Building a loyal team not only creates a positive work environment but a successful business.  My best work is collaborative, whether it is with my fellow managers, engaging the people who work for me, or discerning the desires of the clientele that I serve.   I love the creative experience of building with others, and I thrive on the nuances of building unique relationships.

Creative Passions:  While I thrive in being successful, having the spotlight, and love the attention that comes with making people happy, I have no desire to intrude on a guest’s experience.  What excites me is knowing that we have taken care of a guest, that we have succeeded in our task.    At my core, I believe my own success comes from the collaborative work experience, and it is something which drives my creativity, whether it be with a purveyor that has something exciting to sell me, a management team member who wants to put together a special event, a customer who has unusual requests, or an employee who wants to learn and stretch themselves.  These become challenges to engage me and excite me.   While I have come up with original ideas, they tend to be less important to me than the act of creating with others.

Culinary Philosophy:  I have one basic question that must be answered before all others:  is it yummy?  After that, I will digress into intellectual arguments for or against what I am serving (i.e.: is it local, seasonal, sustainable, cruelty free, how processed, what kinds of compromises am I making, how can I offset those compromises…).  I believe that Vegetarians mostly have it right, though not entirely.  Our environment is in danger from industrial farming.   Factory farming, mono-culture, lack of biodiversity, genetic engineering, dangerous chemicals,  ad infinitum, does  not produce healthy food.  Food subsidies that reward mono-culture, that do not support small farmers, have created a situation where we will not pay what food is actually worth.  It has screwed with our economy — remember Farm Aid?  The situation literally forces  us to eat something that is substandard and  a new invention, something that was never in the human diet and now creates its own set of problems.  I am a traditionalist in many respects, and I come by it honestly. I love the received wisdom of cuisines passed down: the techniques of cookery, food in season, the rituals of dining, and the joy of celebration.  While in my career I have come up with some original dishes and techniques, I will always be loyal to those who practiced their craft before me.   The experience of cuisine, the rituals of dinning, is central to who we are as human beings.  And in the midst of my critique,  I find that I will make compromises because, well, perhaps a deep fried Twinkie is exceptionally yummy?  Maybe it is worth cruelty for me to experience the lushness of foie gras? Perhaps, before it is extinct, I will have one more opportunity to experience the pop, the salinity, the mouth feel, the oiliness and fishiness of Beluga caviar… I cannot help but be human: a sensualist, a hedonist, a hunter.  The idea of eating something that is completely unnatural is something we look down on, and yet we do every day with guilty(or oblivious) pleasure.   The idea of eating something on the verge of extinction or consuming that which creates unimaginable suffering goes against the mores of our contemporary culture, and we view as  primitive as the peasant and his gavage.   Yet we tolerate the grossest of cruelties in our mass production.  The rituals and traditions of dining rein in our base animal hungers, and give them structure, a frame work to set us apart from “primitives”, simultaneously separating us from the true nature of our food: what it is and where it came from.   I am trusted to make those decisions for the diner, to filter it so that they may eat in good conscience.    Dining itself is a civilized act;  it is my job to harness the rituals and traditions, and thereby showcase our hungers in an acceptable form.  And Thorstein Veblen critiques me through it all.

Pinewoods Dedication

Pinewoods Camp, Inc.  is an educational, non-profit traditional dance and music retreat that has served primarily adults, with family sessions as well, for over eighty years.  I first attended when I was six years old with my brother and mother, and later worked there as a teenager and young adult, moving through the ranks to eventually run the kitchen.  I returned in my late 30s to supervise a new generation of kitchen staff that were working there for some of the same reasons that I had chosen to be there: to dance, sing, and play music.  They are in the process of rebuilding the venerable dining hall and kitchen, and fundraising for it.  A book is being published for the opening.   Twenty Tables of Eight, containing interviews and recipes from the former cooks and chefs at Pinewoods, is being assembled by a woman native to Takoma Park, MD, Sarah Pilzer,  who worked for many years on the Kitchen Crew at Pinewoods.  It will be published later this Spring.  Below is an excerpt from my dedication page.

Dining, as dance, is a communal activity, with its own set of rules, traditions, and aesthetics. Cooks and chefs are as committed to creating an experience for an audience as any musician or caller. The Pinewoods dining aesthetic is one that many people have contributed to, and is framed by the limits of the space, the tools at hand, the money available, and the campers and their wants. The cooks at Pinewoods work within these confines, and seek to produce food for some 160 people a meal, three times a day, from June into September, making food from scratch — real, honest cooking — during a break from their regular lives, or while they try to figure out what’s next, or so that they can avail themselves of the opportunities to learn that which Camp provides… In the meanwhile, life happens, and for some of us our experience at Pinewoods is defining.

On Team Building

Being hired to work in a kitchen is not  dependent  on ones age, race, or education. Hiring is based on ability, and promotion is based on strengths. I have two sous chefs, both from the same country, but separated by over 30 years in age and the experience of a brutal civil war. Both have earned their place as leaders in my kitchen.

I am late in life running a restaurant kitchen. I was hired at Meridian Pint at the age of 41, and although I have other kitchen management experience, this was my first time opening a restaurant. There was an advantage to doing this at my age: I knew what I wanted.  At 41, it also meant that I had had years of experience working with others.   I am inherently a people person, but that does not mean I am necessarily good at managing others. On this path, I continue to learn my weaknesses, and as I learn them, I am able to develop the tools to deal with them efficiently, turning them into strengths.  I have learned the people skills so necessary to building a strong team, and this is a crucial part of my job.

While it is important to me that I like the people that I hire, it is more important to me that the people I hire work well with others.  I am a manager, no longer a line cook in the thick of things,  and the people who work for me work more closely with each other than with me. I need the input of those that work for me, and in particular, I need the input of the people that I cannot do without. Everyone is replaceable, of course, including myself, but at the end of the day my success is dependent upon the strengths of others.

My kitchen, like most, is staffed with an “underclass”; people who thrive in adversity and intensity. Often they are immigrants, from poverty, a racial minority, or some combination thereof.  Like those who work in other intense fields, emergency services, for instance,  many come with traumatic histories, things that none of us want to live through. I have known my share of war survivors, people who have fled villages of headless bodies. And I have known my share of abuse survivors as well.  Things neither you nor I would want to live through. Because of these experiences,  we in the war zone of the kitchen function well under stress.  We bond in intensity.  This bond is of course what is most crucial to the functioning of a team. The sense of togetherness is what makes for strength.  The lack thereof is what creates a rift. Without the bond, there is no camaraderie, without camaraderie, there is no team work. When the bond does not form it is frustrating,  and the person usually does not last;  when the bond is broken it is a betrayal.  Repair work must happen or we forever part ways.

I work at creating that sense of loyalty to the team. Yes, I want people loyal to me. “I am the guy who hired you, respect me.” However, more importantly, respect the team with whom you work. Bow to peer pressure. Understand that if you have their back, they will have yours. And at the end of the day, understand that the people we all serve, the customer, is truly the task master, and without them, none of us will succeed.  A divided kitchen will fail.

I have a team of men and women who work for me, predominantly Latino, though not entirely, who struggle through their own private holocausts to come to work every day and perform. The work is not easy, it does not pay well, and it is filled with unpredictable, acute stress. The greatest satisfaction I take from this work is not the pretty plates, the tasty food, or the happiness of my customers (you come a close second)… it is baring witness to success in a profoundly human way… I do not measure success by material wealth, but by the growth of an individual. I am proud of the men and women who make it,  who grow in their profession,  and I do not fault those that do not, because, honestly, it really isn’t easy.